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Ben Lookner {April 2013}

I picked up Chris McDougall’s Born to Run while sitting in the back seat of my friend’s car as we drove up to Philly for the half-marathon last September. Skeptical at first (I had heard it was a Vibrams Bible of some sort), I was quickly drawn into this well-written, fascinating book. Little did I know that one short passage within it would dramatically change my life over the course of the winter.

I have decided that I want to race lighter this upcoming triathlon season. At my heaviest, I can get up to 180, but usually hover in the mid 170s. This year I want to see what racing at 160-165 is like- a decision based off of concerns of speed, but also ultimately vanity/self-challenge. Could I race light and maintain my training and fitness? It was time to find out.

A friend of mine who is a pretty competitive cyclist in Philadelphia and used to be a lightweight national team rower heard of my goal and eagerly offered his advice. No stranger to cutting weight, his main suggestion was that I should do so in the off-season so that my body would regulate to the new weight and I would not feel like I am starving myself when my real training and racing begins. Looking at my schedule, I decided that after Philly and the DC Ragnar, I would get to it. As anyone who tries to lose weight can attest though, getting to it is not always easy going. Despite increased workouts, I was nearing my goal. And then I remembered Born to Run.

McDougall’s book did not inspire me to run long distances- I had already signed up for my first marathon (DC Rock-n-Roll) a few months back. Nor did it inspire me to run barefoot- I will stick with my lightweight New Balance 890v2’s, thank you very much. The inspiration from the book came at a point where the author, who admits that he was not really the runner type, was attempting to lose weight. At one point, he meets with a physician, who asks, “Have you ever tried eating salad for breakfast?”

Whoa.

Salad for breakfast? That sounded weird/time-consuming/uncomfortable. But, since I’m a little odd, apparently love wasting time (die, Facebook), and enjoy putting myself through stupid amounts of hard exercise, this dietary change seemed like a good fit for me. Farewell, bagels and cereal- I was going green in the morning.

Looking back on my initial foray into salad for breakfast last October, I see a lot of parallels to my first triathlon. Simply put- I had no idea what I was doing, and ended up making a lot of mistakes. What greens should I buy? How much? What else should I add to my salad? My early attempts were clumsy, forcing me to get up earlier so that I would not be late to work. Despite my ineptitude, though, the benefits of abandoning a carb-based breakfast quickly began to show. I felt lighter but fuller going to work (an odd combination brought on by the volume of veggies in my stomach), did not get hungry early on in my day, and my energy skyrocketed. My students told me I was “teaching fast,” a comment I only used to receive if I had face-planted into various caffeine-laden products. I was hooked, but I needed a system.

Since the start, I have gradually built a routine that, like my transitions in triathlon, has been consistently re-evaluated to promote speed, efficiency, and in this case, flavor. I have a preferred salad that alarmingly doesn’t change (but then again, this is the guy who has eaten a peanut-butter and strawberry preserves sandwich for lunch for the past 5 years). Each Sunday, I buy two 1lb buckets of arugula, chop up a large red onion that will last the week, and cook up a bean/lentil/TVP salsa that will act as a dressing. Add in copious amounts of cherry tomatoes and chia seeds, and you have a breakfast that takes 5 minutes to make (though, I will admit, a lot longer to chew).

What I thought was just something to help me hit a weight goal (I was 162 by Thanksgiving) ended up pouring into my life. Having been gradually more intrigued by vegetables over the past few years (probably catch-up from being the kid who never touched salad and whose sandwiches only consisted of bread, meat, cheese, and mayo), this drastic introduction of even more veggies in my day-to-day only served to boost that curiosity. I found myself eating less and less meat, not by choice, but by taste, interest, and, increasingly, feel. I was lighter, more energetic, and getting faster. Attributing that to my diet led me to continue on what seemed to be a natural evolution into a meatless, vegetarian (lacto-ovo) diet, which I was well into when I started training hard for my marathon in January.

When I signed up for my first marathon, I seeded myself with a 3:30 time, something that seemed attainable, but still made me worry. As I trained with my new diet and focus, I began hitting times I never thought I would- suddenly a Boston Qualification and even a sub-3 hour marathon started to come into the picture. On race day, I accomplished one of those two new goals by throwing down a painful 3:01:30.

I believe that big changes done on a slower, more natural evolutionary scale are much more lasting and powerful. I did not decide to start doing triathlon and jump right into a half-ironman. In fact, the idea of mid to long-range distance races held no appeal to me- that is, until after doing sprints and oly’s naturally led me to the half-iron distance. Having tried and failed to become vegetarian cold-turkey two years ago (“I can do this for a month, easy”- WRONG), this transition not only felt natural, it felt easy. Along the way I have garnered a deep appreciation for food and for what I put into my body (a welcome by-product of having to painstakingly make sure my body is getting what it needs in order to maintain my training and racing schedule), and have started to re-define my goals for this upcoming season.

My cycling friend told me that winter is the time to make the change, and now, as spring looms (only in name, though- can this weather please stop?), I am excited to see what that change will bring for triathlon.